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The resilient MEK: A history of unity under pressure

The emblem of People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)
The emblem of People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)

This is the third part of a series by Mehdi Abrishamchi, a veteran member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK).

In the first part, Abrishamchi discussed how the founding of the MEK gave rise to a popular national movement for freedom, and how the Shah and Khomeini dictatorships failed in their efforts to destroy the MEK. Read the first part here. The second part discusses how the MEK reshaped its organization and continued its struggle for freedom after the mullahs’ regime pushed its members into exile. Read the second part here.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating facts for the mullahs’ regime and its foreign allies is that our movement has gone to the brink of obliteration several times, and each time has bounced back even stronger than before. As I outlined in previous parts, we have seen back-to-back destructive plots from this regime and its allies over the last four decades. But our resilience had been tested to its limits more than once even before this regime came to power. Our organization was almost destroyed twice during the Shah’s regime.

The first time was in August of 1971, where all the founding members and 150 members of our Central Committee were arrested by SAVAK during a massive and coordinated raid in Tehran. The level of our membership was no more than a few hundred at the time which made the recovery even more difficult for the first generation of the MEK. The Iranian society did not even know who the MEK was and what it stood for since all activities were conducted underground at the time. But as our founders faced the Shah’s military tribunals, they turned the table on his regime and during televised trials exposed his crimes. The Shah’s regime initially thought that the trials will demonstrate strength in crushing the opposition. But was caught off guard. While he executed our founding members in May 1972, the trials helped the MEK to become a household name.

Many more university students, scholars, labor activists and intellectuals joined the rank and file of our first generation of the MEK soon after. Our remaining leadership, however, was still in prison. Massoud Rajavi, the most senior member who survived the executions due to his well-known brother’s campaign to save his life in Europe, remained in SAVAK’s prison facing the most inhumane torture until his release 10 days before the 1979 revolution.

The second time that the MEK faced near demise was in the early 1970s, when several individuals took advantage of the original leadership’s imprisonment and declared the MEK as a “Marxist” group outside prison. Several of our members committed to our founding principles were targeted and killed by this pseudo-left splinter group. Our ideological existence, physical existence and organizational reputation came under attack as we simultaneously faced the bloody coup by the splinter Marxist group from within, the Shah, and the religious fundamentalists who had found a way to undermine our progressive and democratic interpretation of Islam.

As the splinter group took over our social brand, organizational logo (modified), resources, and political name, Massoud Rajavi began to issue specific guiding principles for all members inside and outside of the prisons. From 1975-1979, his message and guidance were communicated from prison cell to prison cell through Morse code, one-to-one sessions in cells and other means. As prisoners were transferred from one prison to the next, they carried Massoud’s message to their fellow MEK members to salvage the organization in prisons across different cities in Iran. Through family members, Massoud’s message made its way outside of prison and gave those MEK members outside an ideological and operational framework to carry on.


In every one of these situations, both the Shah and the mullahs’ regime were too quick to write us off and say that we were finished. But we did not just survive, we became stronger than before.


The secret to our resiliency

I belong to the second generation of the MEK, but regardless of when we joined, we have all seen how the same practices used against our first generation by the Shah was enhanced further against our second and third generations by the mullahs inside and outside of Iran. Indeed, three generations of our leaders and rank and file have seen it all. From torture to bloody coups and executions. From betrayals while in prison to betrayals by those who left our ranks. From the unjust domestic and foreign terror tag to massacre and inhumane bombing of our bases. From the raids and arrests of our leaders in Iran and Europe to kidnapping and assassinations of our members in Iraq and Europe. From the terror plots in Tehran to the terror plots in Paris, Washington and Albania.


Some of these plots are still going on today. For more than five decades, we have seen all colors of betrayals, slanders, character assassinations, disinformation, demonization, lies and more lies by two brutal dictatorships. But we still managed to reach the status of the most pivotal political organization against the mullahs’ regime. The secret to our resiliency simply lies in a word uttered by our founders, which holds true to this day: unity.


Unity, unity, unity!

The three founding members of our organization are known as the symbols of resilience and resistance. Ali-Asghar Badizadegan, who faced the most vicious tortures by SAVAK, but never surrendered. The Shah’s regime was forced to finally execute him while he was on a stretcher. He symbolized the notion of resistance for us from the very early days of our existence. Mohammad Hanifnejad and Saeed Mohsen are recognized for their resiliency and vision. In a joint message, just days before their execution in 1972, they outlined some final guidelines for our organization. The wrote their messages on cigarette papers that were hidden inside the cracks of a wall in Evin prison. Their message gave our organization the foundation to survive and grow even to this day.

Our founders had full confidence that their message will be discovered someday and reach the MEK’s surviving members. A message which is now part of our historical exhibits for many others who joined as second or third generation of the MEK. The following are excerpts from their joint statement:

We are writing this message as we await our execution in a few days. All other opportunities for us to communicate with you are taken away as the bloodthirsty enemy continues with its executions, and brutal and inhumane torture resembling the Dark Ages. Nevertheless, despite all the hardships, we remain confident that we are on a path to victory and will achieve our goals: freedom for our people… Since our time is short, we wanted to leave you with some parting words… Brothers! Our organizational integrity and unity will remove any barriers against us, so never despair.... You must resist in all circumstances. You should not be afraid! The bloodthirsty enemy must be condemned and humiliated! The heavy dark clouds hovering over the skies of our homeland and the atmosphere of oppression must be broken!
Brothers! Our organization started from nothing. Literally nothing! But gradually our capabilities and strengths grew as a collective. New people have joined us so much so that we now hear from many new members. We will be victorious. Your heart is brave as your faith is strong. The same great faith which has brought us here will carry us through and take us above and beyond. Be vigilant, be honest and hold yourself accountable, so that you can learn from mistakes. Always safeguard your organizational unity. Learn from others, and do not fall into disarray with mistakes.  Brothers, as Imam Ali says, beware of how history will look upon you and make your life a lesson for others.

Such insightful guidance has acted as a compass for our organization for more than five decades. Our founder Hanif communicated the MEK’s doctrine through various meetings and messages that are documented by our first-generation members. Among his messages to our organization, his last shines the most. He underscored the need for unity in three areas:

  1. Organizational unity
  2. Strategic unity
  3. Ideological unity

In Hanif’s view, the only guarantee for victory is a strict adherence to these principles. Our members take these principles very seriously as they are the bedrock of our resiliency.

What does unity mean to the MEK and how do we achieve it?

The most prominent lesson our founders left us with is unity, which could also mean "solidarity" or "togetherness." Being a collective and aspiring toward a common vision, achieving a common goal based on specific timelines and accountabilities. It is clear that 'common work' is impossible without 'common purpose.' But just relying on the ‘common purpose’ is not enough to get to the finish line together. Many political groups in Iran’s history started with the same diligence to achieve the same goal, but after a while they drifted apart, were divided up, or even turned against each other. Getting to the goal and surviving the trials and tribulations brought on by unexpected hurdles on the journey require a “plan” that is defined based on “unity of action,” which requires some degree of "unity of thought and theoretical cohesion." This is how organizational cohesion, strategy and ideology converge when speaking about unity in the MEK.

We invest hours engaging in dialogue and discussion to ensure our preparedness to execute on this unity. While some organizations were not willing to pay the price in terms of time and effort for their unity, we consider it as a must in every endeavor or initiative that we take on. As we embark on executing our plan, our organization pays a great level of attention to discipline along the way. Discipline can convey an unnecessary rigidness nowadays, but for us is nothing more than defining the rules of the road. It means a set of rules and conventions where communication, operational lessons learned, and tactical clarity is flowing through the organization. Such discipline allows us to learn fast from mistakes and creates a path forward to recovery and growth. Such practices would not have been possible if our organization lacked the foundation of unity in the three areas mentioned earlier.

To be continued…